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Learning to Problem Solve

Problem solving. Multi-colored puzzle.

Having problem solving skills is essential for finding success in many aspects of life. From working towards financial success to fostering meaningful relationships, knowing how to approach a problem and working to create the best possible outcomes can make all the difference in one’s life. The earlier people learn how to use problem solving skills, the better off they will be for it. For students, gaining problem solving skills is an important part of learning. If you are currently teaching elementary students, be sure to include activities that give students ample opportunities to learn and practice problem solving skills.

When we problem solve, we are looking for a favorable outcome, the best possible solution to a dilemma. To arrive at this, it is necessary for us to create a plan of action. To reach the goal, we must consider what kind of effects will be brought about by our approach. We must weigh the benefits and detriments our course of action will bring. Easy choices are rare; every move we make carries with it pros and cons. When we begin to think critically about our predicaments, it is imperative that we make predictions about the kinds of consequences – both immediate and distant – our actions will bring. While our minds work through this, we also must consider how we need to budget our resources along the way.

All of this can be demonstrated to kids and put into practice through a myriad of classroom activities. Choose one of your favorite crafts for students, a creative project that includes cutting, gluing, measuring, and designing. Have students each make the craft. Then have them make it a second time but make them speed up the process. Allot half the time originally spent on the craft, but also allow them to work in pairs. You can increase the challenge by restricting access to glue, scissors, and rulers. Now that supplies are limited and the amount of time to create a finished product has been shortened, students will find they need to problem solve if they are going to complete the task satisfactorily. This time, they must budget their resources, work steadily, and make a division of labor, delegating who will do each task. When the time is up, students must stop where they are with the craft. Did they finish with time to spare? Ask them to explain to the class how they managed it. Were some couples unable to complete the assignment? Have them discuss where they believe they fell short and how they would approach the problem differently to achieve a more successful outcome. No matter how far along they managed to get, take time with your class to celebrate their success and achievement at learning how problem solving skills can help them to reach future goals.

As young students begin learning to weigh out options, take inventory of pros and cons, and predict consequences, they are simultaneously learning to exercise impulse control. Approaching minor and major problems may become reflexive after a great deal of experience is under one’s belt, but care and caution must be heeded when one lacks the training and experience required by a new situation. Elementary students, being far from mature, need to practice resisting the urge to immediately react when a problem arises. Literature can help kids practice this.

Select a story for your elementary class to read. Read as far as you need to for students to see what kind of conflict is facing the characters. Pause reading the text to have your students practice using their problem solving skills. Ask students to write or talk about what choices they would have if put in the characters’ shoes. Have them discuss how their choices not only affect the main character, but also the others involved with the situation. While the outcome they envision may benefit one character, how may others suffer? Problem solving skills teach kids to estimate a value. It could be the worth or importance of a tangible object or the feelings experienced emotionally. Students must realize their actions can have a direct affect on them and on others as well.

Introduce students to advice columnists by reading local and national newspapers. Show students how these wise men and wise women use their expertise in their field to help others solve problems important to them. Again, have students practice their problem solving skills using literature you are currently working with in class. Have each student write a letter from the viewpoint of a character to an advice columnist. In it, the character should explain what conflict is being faced. Collect the letters, shuffle them, and distribute them randomly to students. Now have students respond to the letter from the viewpoint of the columnist. Share the final products with the class and discuss how seeing a problem from someone else’s point of view can influence a person to make more informed decisions.

We all need to use problem solving skills throughout life. Practicing them early can have a major impact on a child’s learning. The classroom is a safe environment for them to learn these lifelong fundamentals.

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